The designer’s day off
As established in the previous article, Spec Ops: The Line is a Bad Videogame.
So why are we still hearing about it? Why isn’t it already relegated to a bargain bin? Why is it being hailed in some quarters as an important landmark? Why did someone write a fucking novel on it?
There are two answers to this question, depending on the level of pretentiousness of the writer:
- This game makes a mature, original, and provocative statement about the realities of war for front-line troops, or ‘It is Good Narrative.’ As I argued in the previous post, Spec Ops: The Line’s narrative merely serves to highlight the culture of immaturity that plagues the medium and little else.
- This game “holds a mirror up to gamers” and forces them to examine their motives for playing a violent war game, or ‘It is Good Art/Commentary.’ Exploring this idea is the main focus of this post.
You’ll note that both arguments completely ignore the mechanics of the game elements, and for good reason, because it is exactly the mechanics that further undermines what is already a poor excuse for both narrative and art. Yet, it is very much the fact that Spec Ops is ostensibly a game that it earns its praise, because only by comparing it against its contemporary gaming peers does this mess seem noteworthy.
The de-emphasising of game mechanics is a problem that lies, not only with the developers, but also with a videogaming press that craves validation. By and large, with a few notable exceptions, the videogames press is constantly looking over the fence at literature, film, and art and they want to have that. They want the pat on the head from society at large, not content with praise coming solely from within the broader gaming community. They want to grab the attention of the gatekeepers of culture, get them to look over at gaming and say, ‘heck, maybe these guys are onto something.’ They want this so badly that they are willing to valorise games that are completely vapid mechanically, but mimic the conventions and language of other mediums, primarily cinema. The appropriation, often in name only, of critically acclaimed artefacts from other mediums is another symptom of the problem.
Rockstar are one of the most prolific practitioners of trying to shoe-horn the language of film into videogames. Take Max Payne 3 as an example. Rockstar acquired the IP, originally a wry, tongue-in-cheek take on the hard-boiled noir, and used it to blatantly remake the film Man on Fire, without considering that players would find it jarring that a redemption story was wedged between gameplay that is best described as a lengthy, psychopathic killing-spree. To their credit, they did their best to de-emphasise the gameplay by making it impossible to skip the lengthy ‘cinematic’ cutscenes. When you leave videogaming to gamers, we get Counter-Strike and Day Z. When you leave videogames to aspiring film-makers and other assorted hacks, whohave this “really great story” they want to tell, we get Hitman: Absolution and Black Ops.
When you read interviews with Yager Studios, the developers of Spec Ops, you feel that they never really wanted to make a game; while nominally Spec Ops is a videogame, it doesn’t want to be one. The developers repeat contextually-meaningless mantras such as “stage the scene” and “character arc” like true disciples of McKee’s one-size-fits-all approach to screenwriting. They make it clear that good writing was a priority. It didn’t matter if everything else was derivative, the writing had to be original and push boundaries. This attitude really shows in the final product. The explanation put forward was that they were destined to make a military shooter before the writing even started. In the case, the writing staff should have sent a memo to the games designers telling them not to include mechanics and animations that were so dependent on glorifying ultra-violence and other assorted military clichés. As it stands, the narrative and the gameplay are so diametrically opposed, that a literary equivalent would be somewhat like a publishing house printing Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man on parchment made from human skin. It just doesn’t work.
Funny unGames and …
Tom Bissel regards Kane and Lynch 2 as “a peerless masterpiece” so I feel pretty comfortable saying he enjoys Bad Videogames, however even he commented on the ludonarrative dissonance found in Spec Ops, and how it undermines the intention:
“The most terrifying enemy in the game, for instance, is a guy with a knife …Your squad mates will alert you to the knife guy’s presence, which is never not hilarious. Everyone’s got automatic weapons and the dude with a knife is the single most terrifying enemy onscreen … I know why melee weapons are eight times more deadly than rifles in most shooters. It’s about balance. Provided that a shooter is not taking itself too seriously, I accept dumb balancing conventions. But when a game is asking you to think about what onscreen killing means, and why any of us like to engage in it, the appearance of Terrifying Knife Guy bursts any fragile bubble of contemplation.”
It’s not just ludonarrative dissonance that Spec Ops struggles with; Spec Ops is undermined by a complete thematic breakdown. The characters themselves don’t have consistent motivations or personalities. They are okay with slitting an enemy’s throat while callously saying, “Sweet dreams, bitch,” but when confronted with collateral damage they’ll complain angrily that “[Walker] turned us into killers!” Players are meant to understand that use of white phosphorus is barbaric, but when designating a target the player barks, “Burn it.”
Co-writer Richard Pearsey claims he sees the game as more of a mystery waiting to be solved than a shooter. In his mind, the true objective is to piece together what exactly has happened in Dubai. The gameplay strongly disagrees. The very first time you incapacitate an enemy, a potential source of intel, the game immediately instructs you to stomp on his neck, and for this the player is rewarded with fifteen extra bullets. To demonstrate that this is a mature and contemplative moment, the player character utters the line “I thought we were meant to rescue people.” Really? How many people are three heavily armed soldiers going to rescue? Do they have a medic? A translator? Transport? Extra food, water, or medical supplies? The game is presenting me one thing, yet the narrative is telling me another. Later, Konrad mocks the player for their foolishness in trying to rescue people with guns, which I’d accept as a valid criticism if the game were called Peace Corp: The Line, rather than the ninth iteration of a series of military shooters bearing the Spec Ops brand. Despite whatever the developers rattle off about character arcs and their descent into darkness narrative, everything you need to know about the game is revealed in that first throat stomp: “No matter what the narrative is going to claim, you’re going to kill everything – get used to it.” It’s every shooter you’ve played before, only now with self-aware taunts added to the loading screens.
The blog Space Ramblings noted the similarities between Spec Ops: The Line and Michael Haneke’s film, Funny Games; a movie with so much of the violence Haneke was trying to critique, that he decided to make it twice. I guess his artistic statement was just too important to go unnoticed. I could easily quote the whole article, but you should just go read it here; It’s short. Funny Games tried to act like a conversation about violence in the media wasn’t already happening, and if it was, no-one in the target audience was listening, or was smart enough to understand. So, he made the film specifically to berate those people, twice. Spec Ops takes a very similar didactic approach.
…the artlessness of Spec Ops
Lately, I’ve noticed that when people write about videogames they tend to talk up the interactive narrative, and I often get the impression that they consider it to be a characteristic that is unique to, and defines, videogames. Theatre, stand-up comedy, performance art, and art installations are also capable of demonstrating a high-level of interactivity, and all are quite capable of surpassing Spec Ops on that metric. An example of successful shock art installation, similar in intent to Spec Ops in that it aims to incriminate the viewer, is the Helena exhibit by Danish artist, Marco Evaristti. For Helena, Evaristti placed ten live goldfish in ten blenders, all quite visibly plugged into a power board and ready to go. There was no other incitement to press the button or not; everything was up to the viewer. The viewer had space to consider the work and the implications of the exhibit. What I found most interesting was that when someone finally pressed a button, (as far as I can tell, a button has only been pressed twice in the history of the exhibit) the people charged with animal cruelty were the artist and the gallery, not the person who pressed it. One wonders how Yager Studios can seek to lay blame on a player, considering the man-hours invested in the creation of Spec Ops compared to the average time it takes to complete the videogame.
If Yager Studios had designed Helena, I imagine it would play out like this:
You enter a small room and the only way out is through a red door that says “To the Exhibit.” You turn the doorknob and enter the room. It’s another small room and there are ten blenders on the table filled with bits of fish. Behind them is a screen playing reverse-angle footage of you opening the red door which you discover is connected to a complex mechanism that turned on all the blenders for just long enough to blast all the goldfish into soup. After you have watched the video and looked at the goldfish for an appropriate amount of time, you are allowed to go back out, where you are now met by a pink neon sign that flashes: “Have many goldfish have you killed today?” You are then taken into custody by police and charged with animal cruelty, though it turns out the goldfish were never real.
Linking back to the Bissel quote earlier, and what he describes as the “fragile bubble of contemplation,” there is simply very little time or space for the player to consider their actions outside of what the narrative tells them, or the game forces them to do.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game
Spec Ops is a linear game that removes almost all player agency, spoon-feeds you shit you’re meant to swallow, then rubs it in your face and calls you a bad person. It’s utterly risible in execution. That the developers can say, “if you want to win you should take out the disc,” is beyond the pale, especially when they set out to create a videogame that is entirely dependent on the story. Can you ‘win’ Titanic by stopping the DVD after they fuck in the car? Can you ‘win’ To Kill A Mockingbird by putting the book down before the verdict?
The narrative concern with virtual murder in Spec Ops are so didactic in their presentation that it borders on a superiority complex, yet the gameplay itself blithely mimics every other real-world, violent, jingoistic shooter. And just when you thought the plot was going to do something interesting, something that the more Brechtian elements hinted at, the game either plunged straight back into some emotional narrative moment, or hand-waved it away with the suggestion the story was all in the character’s head.
Why make a violent, jingoistic cover shooter at all? Why spend countless hours and millions of dollars planning, executing and marketing this, if it is truly something that we should feel wrong or unsettled about?
I believe it’s because Yager Studios wanted, from the start, to make a violent, jingoistic cover shooter. It’s what they knew how to do. In their view that was what people wanted. They wanted to because of the industry, because of where the money is. They wanted to take the quick path and grab the low-hanging fruit. Walt Williams claims that the brief was ‘squad based, military shooter in Dubai’ and after that they had free reign. How did they use the free reign? They used it to create a bloodbath, replete with hangings, stonings, torture, and extra-brutal kills. The only difference between Spec Ops: The Line and its peers is the attempt to use the narrative to shift a poorly defined sense of guilt or moral culpability from Yager Studios to the players, and then to trot out this line to support a claim that they were doing something new and interesting.
This manipulation of the play through narrative reminds me of similar situation, when the developers of Bioshock likewise attempted to use their linear narrative an as excuse. They tried to cleverly mask the fact that they’d completely sold out the System Shock legacy and had instead made a corridor shooter devoid of player agency. The clever plot twist was that the player-character was being telepathically controlled by the antagonist for the majority of the game. ‘Ahah!’ thought some players, ‘here is our explanation as to why Bioshock is a corridor fetch-a-thon.’ Never mind the fact that, after the ‘big reveal,’ the game continued to play in exactly the same manner, and be exactly the same corridor shooter devoid of any real player agency. The whole twist had no effect on the gameplay; it was simply narrative window dressing.
Of course, there are still enlightened people who comment that the Bioshock twist was appropriately meta and deep, that the developers were making the point that it’s really the videogame that is in control of a player. That’s just fucking dumb. It’s like reading ‘I can’t believe I made you turn the page just then!’ on a new page of a novel when the reader is simply following conventions set by their knowledge of books. It’s exactly the same conceit as when a child says ‘hey you!’ followed by ‘made you look!’ if you do. Maybe it’s a deep commentary on how people are socially wired to react to calls for their attention, or maybe it’s just a kid being a dick. If anything, the Bioshock twist is an unwitting indictment of linear narratives and their utter failure to realise the possibilities of the medium.
Killing is …
Spec Ops: The Line sold poorly, and could be considered a commercial failure compared to its peers in the genre, despite a decent critical reception. It was also far more violent than any of its peers, and the final body-count was tremendous. To me this highlights the fact that the statement – ‘why do gamers enjoy killing?’- comes loaded with two falsities. One, that a virtual depiction of killing can in any way be morally equated with killing. And two, that it’s the depiction of the mechanics being enjoyed by a player, rather than the mechanics themselves.
Perhaps gamers prefer the less brutally depicted games because they don’t enjoy the killing. Instead they prefer the fast-paced action that the shooter genre, and its mechanics, are well-suited to provide – as demonstrated by Painkiller, Serious Sam, Far Cry, etc.
Then there’s the fact that first-person shooters have always been extremely popular as competitive titles – consider titles such as Tribes, Counter-Strike, Quake III: Arena, the Battlefield series, Modern Warfare, Red Orchestra, Natural Selection, and so on. The most popular competitive shooter of recent years has been the Modern Warfare series. You could argue that it’s because people enjoy guiltlessly killing other people (and does it then follow that the bad players enjoy being killed?) However, I’d argue that Modern Warfare series is popular due to the low health and frantic pace that offers a more level playing field for players of all skill levels, as well as system that offers little punishment for ‘dying,’ and the virtual ‘crack’ of advancement bonuses and unlocks.
A lot of assumptions that Yager Studios make about gamers are drawn from popularity of the Modern Warfare series, such as the contention that people play shooters because they want to be the hero, the good guy. This is silly. If you make a game with challenging mechanics, people will play it, regardless of which side of a fake conflict the story places them on. Do people choose to be Terrorists in Counter-Strike for ideological reasons, or for access to weapons they believe are mechanically better? Do they play Terrorists because they have a fascination with explosions, bombs, and bomb-making, or because they believe that Terrorists have a gameplay advantage on the particular map?
The biggest problem I have with the fuss about depictions of killing in games is that people simply lift moral dimensions from the real-world act of killing, and then apply them without further thought or argument.
If you kill some in the real-world, most people would accept that they won’t later return to the world in any recognisable state. But what if you shot someone in the face in the real-world, knowing that in ten seconds they would come back to life – is that killing? If you’re playing paintball and you shoot your friend, taking him out of the round – is that killing? Does an actor playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet kill the actor playing Mercutio? Would he be arrested after the show, and waved into the back of the police vehicle by the miraculously reincarnated Mercutio?
How can you kill someone in a multiplayer videogame where all players understand that there is no finality? Even in a ‘perma-death’ game such as Day Z you can still re-enter the world and try again. But Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a multiplayer title (at least as far as Yager Studios is concerned) and the linear narrative adds a little more complexity to the issue. Looking at linear narratives in general; in books and films you could claim that characters are killed when, using the logic of the diegetic world, the audience believes that the character is removed from the world permanently. This is possible because the narrative progresses completely linearly e.g. Matt Damon’s character is killed in The Departed when he is shot in the head; you can rewind the film as many times as you want, but at that point he is always killed. However in videogames, even one as linear and narrative-focussed as Spec Ops, I don’t think you can make as clear-cut a statement.
Imagine you’re playing Spec Ops: The Line and you’re in an area with two generic enemies. You shoot one of them and they fall to the ground. Is that character removed from the game? Are they alive or dead? Have you just killed them? One perspective is simple enough; no, they are not dead. They were simply a mechanical obstacle destined to be recreated later in the game with the exact same model defining their appearance, the exact same actor defining their voice, and the exact same code defining their behaviour. However, even if you take the view that the instance is unique due to a particular setting or challenging moment then, at best, you’re left with perspective two: at that moment, the enemy is neither dead nor alive. Why? Because, while it’s entirely possible that you will shoot the second enemy, proceed through a checkpoint and never play that section again: enemy is dead, it’s also possible that the second enemy kills you, forcing you to replay from the beginning of the checkpoint: enemy is alive. “Oh man I have to kill this guy again,” you mutter, not realising how logically absurd the statement is. In a single, uninterrupted playthrough, you might experience shooting the same enemy in the face three, five, eight times. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat in reverse; the enemy is only truly dead when the videogame and its designers decide it’s appropriate to ‘measure’ the progress via a checkpoint, leaving the players actions within the box largely meaningless until such time. I realise we’re heading towards the philosophical but shouldn’t that be tackled first? Shouldn’t there first be a discussion on the possible existence of culpability before meting it out to players, developers, and the industry as a whole?
Personally don’t believe that players should be excused of responsibility as much as I believe they have no responsibility. The claim that a player who chooses to play a shooter is obligated to feel emotionally culpable for the violence is as absurd as claiming that a player who chooses to be the banker in Monopoly is obligated to understand fractional reserve regulations. Not only that, but that the insistence on creating games that try to directly influence the player through structured narratives is detrimental to gaming as a whole. It’s disappointing to read the many writers who think the opposite, and wade straight into the moral argument deep-end without even defining or outlining how certain actions in games can even have a real world moral equivalency.